Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Monday, September 19, 2016

A CWCP Conversation: North Korea's Latest Nuclear Test



Below is a conversation between CWCP President Brad Nelson and CWCP Vice President Yohanes Sulaiman on the North Korea’s recent nuclear test. It took place via email over the last week.

Brad Nelson: As you know, North Korea has conducted its 5th nuclear test, and this one is supposedly the most powerful one yet. And not only that, North Korea claims that it now has the ability to mount a nuclear warhead on a missile. So, in other words, North Korea is ostensibly mastering all parts of its military nuclear program, from start-up to weaponization. What are your thoughts on these latest developments?

Yohanes Sulaiman: Einstein once supposedly defined insanity as, "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."

While that may be true, one thing for sure is that these nuclear tests are getting boring. Yes, it is the ultimate weapon of destruction. Yes, Japan will be ticked, and so will South Korea and the rest of the world. These tests are mostly for domestic consumption, to signal that the regime is in control as well to placate the military top brass. Sure, China won’t be happy and might tighten the economic blockade, though just a little, because it too worries about the survival of the Kim regime.

So what else is new?

Basically, everyone is satisfied the status quo, excluding the North Koreans of course, and that's why they are rattling their cage once in a while, like spoiled kids. Frankly, at this point, no matter if Pyongyang detonates its sixth, seventh, or tenth nuclear test, I don't expect the structural situation will change.

These nuclear tests are provocative. But as we saw in the Cheonan sinking and the bombardment of Yeonpyeong, South Korea managed to stay unprovoked. And I doubt that North Korea could launch a serious military invasion to South Korea or Japan, considering that North Korea's weaponry is stuck at Cold War technology and its troops' morale is abysmally low.

Moreover, it is doubtful if North Korea could actually invade or launch terrorist attacks on South Korea or Japan without China finally deciding to cut the regime loose and replace it with something far less belligerent, because, unlike China's own low-cost provocations in South China Seas, East Asia is a far more serious matter for China. But, of course, regime change in North Korea is a risky matter for China too.

BN: I agree that the structural elements haven't changed much, if at all. What is most new, at least to me, is the US angle. No, I don't mean that the Obama administration will jump to action, or at least any action that differs from what it's sought and done in the past. So that means condemnation from American officials, expressions of restraint, a push for a UN rebuke and potentially more sanctions, and hope that China can bail the US out. In short, more of the same. But at this point, that means kicking the can down the road to Obama's successor, which he hopes, of course, is Clinton. So we'll see just enough effort to ensure Korea isn't on fire by election time in November, but no movement beyond that. There too little time for anything bigger.

Moreover, that this nuclear test occurred during a presidential campaign means they'll become a political football between Clinton and Trump for the next two months. We'll hear heated rhetoric from not only Clinton and Trump, and their surrogates, with each side arguing who will be the toughest on the Kim government. Will those sharp words bait North Korea into doing more dumb things?

YS: Well, right on cue, have you checked out this Politico news item? Obama got hit from both the Clinton and Trump camps, though Trump is also hitting Clinton over North Korea.

But back to North Korea: I doubt Kim really cares about what Clinton or Trump think about him or the state itself. Yes, North Korea wants global recognition; but unlike terrorist groups, which derive legitimacy from them actually being talked about, I think North Korea has a different reward structure—extracting concessions from testing, weaponizing and threatening to use nuclear weapons. In essence, I think Pyongyang does hope to blackmail other nations: “See, now that we have a bigger bomb, you need to give us more!”

BN: Let's turn to the next steps. I touched on this issue a bit already and am curious to hear your thoughts. What do you think happens going forward--both in terms over the very short-term, over the next few weeks and months, as well as over the next year or two? To me, to a certain extent, all sides--except North Korea--want to keep the status quo intact, but that doesn't seem particularly sustainable over time, for manifold reasons. 

YS: Okay, what will happen in near future? I don't think there will be anything new or novel in the short-term. We’ll see the usual condemnations through the United Nations -- as long as China does not want to do something. This all changes, undoubtedly, if South Korea suddenly goes through with its implicit threat to level Pyongyang, or at least seems on the brink of doing that -- which is very, very unlikely; or if North Korea, probably really late in the game, actually weaponizes its arsenal and prepares to launch.

I think the fear in Beijing is that if it squeezes Pyongyang too hard, the regime will collapse. And China doesn’t want that to happen, so it will do nothing simply because Beijing does not have any palatable option left. Both Seoul and Washington, I think, prefer to let the regime just collapse on its own.

So what's the solution? Fred Kaplan, I think, gets it right, in that the only way to squeeze Pyongyang is by squeezing China, regardless of its fear of regime collapse. At the same time, I simply don't think Obama has the guts or political willingness to do that so late in his term, and he is a safe player anyway. Hillary, I think, will be willing to take more risks. Trump is a wild card. I am not sure if he really thinks North Korea is that important. But at the same time, that might be the exact approach that we need.

BN: I do agree that Kaplan is on to something, though I disagree with the US putting direct pressure on China--his notion of using sticks and carrots. China will resist it, complain about it, and relations will only worsen at a time in which the US can ill afford more global headaches. That said, I find this idea by Kaplan a bit compelling: "So the United States should rally the same sort of campaign that revved up the pressure against Iran before those nuclear talks got underway." Maybe the power of numbers can indirectly move China. Worth a shot, in my view. But such an effort shouldn't only include East Asian nations impacted by a nuclear North Korea, but also include countries--as many as possible, big and small, friend and foe of Washington--from all parts of the world. The US should put together, in short, a true global coalition motivated to contain if not roll back the nuclear progress that North Korea has achieved over the last decade.

The main obstacle here isn't whether such an initiative would work, though of course it's debatable whether it would, nor is it about the lack of time left in Obama's tenure, though that matters too. Instead, it's that Obama isn't interested in doing the dirty work of coalition building. His political modus operandi is to delegate, whether on health care, the Iran nuclear deal or Syria. He wants others to come together on their own and sort out the details. He was saved on health care and Iran by the Democrats and John Kerry and his team (Wendy Sherman, Bill Burns, most notably), respectively; on Syria, there's been no savior. The great myth is that Obama has lead from behind in foreign policy; I see little leadership on important issues like the South China Sea, Syria, Ukraine, Brexit, world populism, global economic growth, and so on. Indeed, on several of the aforementioned issues the US has been surpassed, at least in terms of leadership, by China and Russia. More often than not, Obama's delegated from the front and then went golfing. Yes, I’m exaggerating, but only by a little bit.

Hence, the mess is left to the next administration, and that, quite frankly, isn't reassuring. For at this point, the potential successors to Obama are a scandal-ridden Nixonian figure and a possibly racist and xenophobic political neophyte who knows almost nothing about world politics.

YS: I think a comparison with Iran is instructive. The main distinction between the cases of Iran and North Korea is that the major powers, really, wouldn’t be completely inconvenienced with the collapse of the regime in Iran. The geographic puzzle in the case of North Korea significantly differs.

Russia and China and Japan are there, India, an aspiring power is not too far away, and there are thousands of US forces stationed within a heartbeat of a North Korean nuclear launch. Additionally, should the Kim dynasty collapse, it is in everyone's playbook that it be followed by reunification, and "unification" is the raison d'etre of both North and South Korea. If China decides to cobble together another Beijing-friendly regime, that regime will have zero credibility in Seoul, and even among Koreans themselves, and I think this freaks China out.

That's why it is difficult to use "Iran" playbook -- the only path to Pyongyang is through Beijing.

On Obama, I agree wholeheartedly with your view. He is not a leader that is willing to do the dirty work. He will give platitudes and leave the mess for everyone to fix. So, like you, I have no hope that the current US administration will do much any anything here.

It would be interesting if Trump wins in November. He might do better than expected simply because he has such a low bar to cross, so to speak. Plus, he has a clean slate with the region’s major players. Hillary might be far more politically competent, but her baggage vis-à-vis Russia and China could make the existing North Korean dilemma an intractable one for her. 

Thursday, July 28, 2016

The Death of the American Expert

One of the trends in America over the last decade has been the disparagement of experts—policymakers, analysts, and scholars. They are under fire, from the right and left, their standing is increasingly tarnished and diminished, and now find themselves wondering where and how they fit in American society. What has happened? And how did we get here? The answer, in brief, is that it hasn’t happened overnight and the causes are variegated and complex.

Arguably, the first meaningful trace of this was the election of George W. Bush in 2000. That election de-emphasized the notion of leader as expert. Sure, Bush was Ivy League-trained and was the former governor of Texas, impressive qualifications. But based on his speeches, interviews and debate performance, it was clear that he knew only a modest amount about foreign affairs, economics, and so on, especially relative to his Democratic rival for the presidency, Al Gore. But that mattered little to the electorate. American citizens were sick of a morally corrupt and scandal-ridden Clinton administration, under which Gore served as Veep. But another issue for Gore was the perception that he was an overzealous adult nerd, someone too anxious to tell anyone and everyone how much he knew and how much others didn’t. Bush, by contrast, didn’t emphasize his knowledge of the US or the world; instead, he rested his case on his supposed preternatural ability to make good decisions (based on information that his staff procures and sifts through). After all, he called himself “The Decider.”

But just as important, Bush portrayed himself as an ordinary American, a guy who loves the outdoors, works out, goes to church, cherishes his family, and so on. A key part of the Bush campaign in 2000 and in his reelection effort in 2004 was the Karl Rove-led strategy to demonstrate that he wasn’t different or better than the average American. In effect, the US was getting an ordinary Joe in office, not an expert or a member of the intelligentsia. It might sound silly, as Bush, since birth, has been a member of the political and economic American elite, but in his speech and walk and demeanor, he fully embraced the role of a guy with whom people wanted to have a coffee or beer.

Another milestone was the collapse of the American economy in 2008. That event damaged the credibility of and confidence in the expert community. US citizens wondered why the experts were unable to foresee the financial disaster and recommend measures to head it off. The experts got it wrong. They fundamentally failed to understand the macro-economic basics of the world economy as well as the micro-economic specific root causes of the US economic collapse. Moreover, there was (and still is) the belief that some of these experts were working against their national economies, trying to make a buck off the failure of these economies. In short, they were corrupt.

The third and latest iteration of the fall of the experts can been seen in rise of Donald Trump. Trump’s political ascension (and to a similar extent Bernie Sanders’s) signals a full-fledged turn against experts and a fact-based society by a significant portion of the electorate. Yes, Trump does repeatedly call attention to his alleged intelligence and his schooling at the famed Wharton School, but he prizes just as much, if not more so, his common sense, his ability to “get things done,” and his everyman sensibility. That’s why he bills himself as an “everyman billionaire”: Trump is just like any other American, except for his wealth and opulence. And it’s easy to create this tale, because it has bled into his life and campaign—whether by design or not.

Put simply, Trump knows little about the world, seems uninterested in much beyond making money and accruing power, and has surrounded himself with a cast of characters who are political neophytes at best and politically ignorant at worst. Despite these and other flaws, Trump is holding steady with Hillary Clinton in national and state polls. Trump’s appeal is based on a lowest-common denominator philosophy: he admittedly acquires knowledge from watching television, spins conspiracy theories, has a shaky relationship with facts, and engages in petty grade school-level name-calling against political opponents, journalists and critics.

What’s shaped and caused the above set of events? I see three main factors. First, there is the real sense among Americans that they’ve been unrepresented, ignored, excluded, and taken advantage of by national leaders, political parties, economic elites, scholars, and more—the very people who are supposed to know things about the us and the world. These disempowered and angry folks now want their voice to be heard, their interests acted upon, and their stake in the state to increase, precisely at the expense of the experts and elites. The successful Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump campaigns, built on the backs of the aggrieved and the outsiders, are the latest manifestation of this growing trend.

Second, the politicization of America’s media has also played a role here. It is routine to see news shows featuring officials, spokespersons and surrogates of the right and left debating various issues and problems. The media has done this in the name of being “fair and balanced,” and not tools of a particular ideology or party. Okay, but this has unleashed a nasty consequence: namely, the widespread belief that the left and the right each have their own set of facts—that facts themselves aren’t value or ideological neutral but are inherently politicized. In this world, there are no real experts, at least not the usual sense of the world, and anyone who claims that mantle is viewed with suspicion. Instead, there are glorified cheerleaders who marshal a liberal or conservative set of facts, on a particular pet causes and issues, that they then use to preach to the already-converted.

Third, the Internet has engendered a massive democratization of information. Nowadays, people can gather information in more ways than ever before, and they, including ordinary folks, can now also act as purveyors of information. No degree, lofty job, or significant life experience is needed; in fact, no real demonstrated expertise required to dispense “facts” and ideas to a global audience. As long as someone can plug into the Internet, that person can start a web site, a blog, a message board, a YouTube page, a Twitter and Facebook account, etc., from which they can share and spread ideas and acquire readers and followers—in the exact same ways, using the same tools, that credible and verifiable experts routinely do to disseminate research and insight. They all sit in the same worldwide e-domain and compete for attention. In fact, nowadays attention—in the form of followers and the number of likes—is conflated with expertise. That is to say, one must be an expert, so goes the logic, to have so many readers and followers. But that’s not necessarily the case, of course, and sometimes it can be far from it.

All of the above, by themselves and collectively, are serious and often harmful, quite frankly—for a variety of reasons, including a deleterious impact on American social cohesion, political polarization, and governmental performance, among other things.

On a micro, individual level, it’s difficult for Americans to participate in a highly sophisticated and competitive globalized US economy if they don’t value knowledge. In the end, such views only leave these folks farther behind politically and economically, and reinforces the tendency for them to feel victimized by larger, uncontrollable forces.

The larger picture suggests it’s hard for Americans to get on the same page politically, economically and socially if they can’t agree on a set of facts, have their own set of facts, and view those who disagree with them as outsiders and even at times enemies. Just as troubling, these circumstances reverberate upward, as they provide pressure on political elites to think and act in similar ways or risk getting punished at the ballot. This means politicians not only must disagree with the opposing political party but at times paint and treat that party as repugnant, vile and even traitorous. The product of the cycle is protracted political gridlock, a stymied policy process, and a continued tear at the fabric of America.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Brexit: What Happened and What's Next?



Photo: Alamy

So what happened? Honestly, I am still digesting the Brexit vote myself. On one hand, I don't want to be seen as saying "this was predictable" since this wasn't -- I am as surprised as everyone else. On the other hand, I do think that this phenomenon is not that dissimilar to the rise of Trump in the US: a major silent majority, comprised of whites, old people, people who've lost out against globalization, people living in "rust belt," all voting with  emotion to make Britain great again. They are the left-behinds of this globally interconnected world that has created a huge inequality gap among the rich and the poor. They are the ones who resent Brussels' red tape and do not feel that European Union really reflects their political preferences and attitudes. 

Are the voters racist? I doubt it. I'd suspect really few of them are racist. Yes, immigration is one of the top British concerns, but fearing job theft or incoming radicals doesn't make them goose-stepping totalitarians. In fact, branding the pro-Brexit voters all as racist is the easiest way to cop out, to avoid asking the real tough question of what went wrong. Why is there a disconnect between these people and the political/economic elites/experts, in London as well as in the EU home offices.

Considering that most of the experts were pro-Remain, I think there's a significant undercurrent now against this "educated class," that many people no longer trust so-called experts, seeing them as just tools for corporation interests.

And it is interesting that instead of asking what went wrong, why this identity of being European only germinates among the rich and political elite and does not trickle down to the lower class -- leading to the rise of right wing parties all over Europe -- the overwhelming reaction, from pundits, analysts and politicians, simply blamed the voters. In fact, with the aid of hindsight of course, there were warning signs about the continued viability of the entire European project. After all, some European Union countries only ratified treaties after major concessions, and some didn't even hold a referendum for fear of rejection at the ballot. I mean, if the EU is so popular, brings so many tangible political and economic benefits, then why all the political gimmicks?

What's next?

One answer is heightened uncertainty, which leads to turmoil in the market--something that has already started today. Britain has to renegotiate a lot of treaties, and with the feeling against Britain in Continental Europe, plus the prospect of seeking their own exit, it's unlikely the EU will grant London many, if any, concessions. Moreover, US economic stagnation combined with the rise of populist sentiments within America means that Washington probably won't help the Brits much at all--either now, under Obama, or under his successor, Trump or Clinton. So Britain is basically alone. Expect at least short-term, if not long-term, economic pain.

And then there are questions about Scotland. As expected, the Scots are already pushing for second referendum, which may be successful this time. But whether that would benefit the Scots is doubtful -- the Scots won't add much to the European Union, and with the price of oil at $50/barrel, they would be another weak economy country begging to get in the European Union. Keep in mind that England actually subsidized the Scots, not the reverse. And while many European countries would love to see Britain get its comeuppance, it is doubtful that they'd actually risk invigorating secessionist movements in Spain and Italy and even in Belgium, outcomes which would only add more headaches to the region and to the EU itself.

We may see more backlash against immigrants, particularly in the form of a political crackdown against them, so as to dampen the apparent right-wing awakening across Europe.

In terms of security, I doubt we'll see much change. Regardless of how much everyone is hating the Brits right now, England is one of vital elements within NATO and the entire European security architecture. There's no way Continental Europe is going to kick the Britain out or to modify the extant security arrangement. Frankly, those agreements and institutions have never been a problem and won't be in the future.

Lastly, in terms of international relations scholarship, there will be a lot of rewriting on the institutions literature. What seemed to be irreversible before is now actually reversible. And the case of Brexit/EU may be relevant to other cases, especially ASEAN, where the current model is closely hewing to the European Union model. With ASEAN currently in mess, it is possible that there will be rethinking of ASEAN in near future.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

A CWCP Conversation: The State Department 51

Over the past two days, CWCP President Dr. Brad Nelson and CWCP Vice President Dr. Yohanes Sulaiman conducted a conversation over email on the recent revelations about the "State Department 51". In short, 51 State Department officials signed an internal memo criticizing America's current Syria policy and arguing for airstrikes against the Assad regime. Because of the number of officials who signed on to the memo, and because of the apparent sharp divisions within the State Department and between the State Department and the White House, this memo has been characterized as "unprecedented."


Brad Nelson: So what do you think about the news reports that 51 State Department officials--in a clear dissent against existing US policy--want the Obama administration to up its game in Syria by militarily targeting the Assad government?

Yohanes Sulaiman: Well, I have a mixed feeling about this. On the one hand, I do believe that they are right, that without any military pressure on Assad, the US is basically giving up the game, in the sense that there's no way Assad is going to step down or make a political compromise. There won't be any reconciliation at all. The country will remain divided along ethnic and religious lines, with the Sunnis basically giving up the political process and ending up radicalized in the long run, setting up the country for future troubles.  Another potential problem is that Hezbollah, which, already a major player in region, will take a much stronger role in both Syria and Lebanon. This in turn will have regional impacts, especially on Lebanon and Israel.

On the other hand, this is already way late in the game, where the position of Assad has already been solidified thanks to Russia, Iran, and aforementioned Hezbollah's assistance. The rebels are in disarray, and hate each other. And some are discredited due to their linkage with the Islamic State (and don't make me start on Al Nusra!) Besides, Obama has lost every shred of credibility on Syria. Remember that notorious "Red Line"? And that's before the Russians put their boots on the ground. The US is basically expected to start a conflict against a well-entrenched Russian force and risk breaking the nuclear deal with Iran? There's no way the Obama administration is going to do that.
In essence, Syria will be another headache in a long run for another administration.

BN: I can understand the frustration that government officials have with Obama's policy toward Syria and ISIS. The Syrian civil war continues, the refugee problem only worsens, the genocidal Assad is still in power, and ISIS headquarters (in Iraq and Syria), despite territorial setbacks, is still alive and its supporters/sympathizers are launching violent attacks globally. And this status quo has held for years now. It's indeed a troubling situation.

That said, in my view, militarily targeting Assad, at this point, probably isn't a good idea. It likely won't force Assad to hold to extant cease-fires and it likely won't bring him to the negotiating table. As long as Assad has Russia in his back pocket, he's mostly free to do as he wishes. The plan of the State Department dissenters will only reinvigorate Russia's backing for Assad, which really has never wavered (it's still attacking pro-US rebels) despite pledges to the contrary, and risk a direct deadly military conflict between Washington and Moscow. If the critics want to get to Assad, then they have to think of creative ways to get Russia--or more specifically, Putin--to change its view and policy on the continuation of Assad in power. 

YS: I think we both agree on the futility of the demands of the rogue State Department officials. But at the same time, the question is: What’s next? As far as I see, Obama has—rightly or wrongly, depending on your view—abdicated America’s interest in the region, giving Assad (and Russia and Iran) free hands, allowing them to do whatever they wish, thereby degrading America’s influence in deciding the ultimate outcome in Syria—and simply training a rag-tag bunch of rebels that the Hezbollah, al-Nusra, and ISIS have bulldozed does not count!

And at the same time, this policy inadvertently gives Turkey a lot of power on the refugees. Just witness European Union's impotence over all human rights abuses in Turkey, and even the Germans have simply rolled over when Erdogan has told them to do so (e.g. squelching the criticism to Turkey).  And the Saudis are doing whatever they want the region, with the United States playing the second fiddle (e.g., see Yemen). No wonder Netanyahu isn’t even giving any lip service to Obama.
I don't have any faith at all that Obama is going to do anything in his remaining months in office. Russia doesn’t care about Obama’s views. And there won't be any concession at all from Tehran, since for that regime, "giving up" their nukes has already been a huge concession anyway (I put that scare quote on purpose).

I would think that Trump administration would actually be in a marginally better position vis-a-vis Russia, simply because it looks to me that Putin likes and prefers Trump and probably wants to build better relations. I think Putin genuinely likes him -- quite similar to Silvio Berlusconi, an infamous wheeler and dealer type of guy. While on the other hand, Putin would see Hillary as a continuation of Obama, whom I don't think Putin respects at all. But regardless of whomever is in command in Washington, the Syrians are screwed anyway.

BN: Obama made the gamble that the Syrian civil war would end fairly quickly, with Assad toppled, pro-reform rebels in power, and little collateral damage. Team Obama never recovered from that wrong bet. He's floundered since then, completely unprepared for what did happen in reality. His best move would've been to try to contain the instability and violence, once Assad steadied himself and the rebels were infiltrated by extremists, both of which occurred in 2012. By that I mean Team Obama, among other things, should've moved quickly on establishing safe zones inside Syria, refrained from calling for Assad's ouster, and put together a robust anti-terror coalition. Of course, none of things happened. Absent a strategy for dealing with Syria, and later ISIS, Obama simply went with his default policy, which is to find ways to minimize the military and economic costs of US involvement in overseas missions and interventions. In practice, then, the America's Syria policy has consisted of minimal cost, low effort, and absent leadership.

I still think Obama--and if not him, then his successor--should set up safe zones. Yes, these would have to be administered and protected. I don't think this would be a big a problem as Obama thinks. In fact, I think the Russians could be persuaded to leave these safe zones alone, as long as Obama toned down any talk of Assad leaving power. Sure, ISIS is trouble, and safe zones would serve as a magnet for Jihadis. But a multinational force, perhaps headed by the US, could keep these zones relatively safe. And if these zones are safe and secure, more than enough international organizations would be willing to pitch in to deal with food, water, shelter, health care, and the like.

I think my recommendation is the moral thing to do so. It would also help neighboring countries and Europe, which are struggling mightily with the in-flux of refugees. It might defuse a bit the highly politicized talk in the US about bringing in Syrian refugees. It would go some way toward reestablishing a sense of American leadership in the world. And most importantly, it would help to keep alive people who desperately need external assistance and support.

YS: The problem with "safe zones," especially under Obama, is that I doubt the Russians/Syrians/Iranians would believe that it is simply a safe zone. They looked at what happened in Yugoslavia, Iraq, and Libya, and saw that as the first step for regime change/partition. Especially the Libyan case. I suspect that the US/France/Britain had secretly promised not to get rid of Qaddafi in order to secure both Russia and China's agreements not to veto any UN resolution. Putin saw himself being played for a fool and thus will seek to prevent a second serving -- which explains why Russia is placing the notorious Buk missile system in both Ukraine and Syria – by blocking the emergence of these safe-zones in Syria. There is no way Russia would allow the establishment of any kind of pro-US enclave that could be used as springboard against Assad. I doubt Putin believes that Obama is uninterested in getting rid of Assad.

Thus my mixed feeling about the demands from the 51 State Department folks. I recognize the downsides, but there's simply no other credible option for Obama to deal with this knotty situation except through the credible escalation of force that could push Assad to the negotiating table. Yet at the same time, given the calendar, there are also electoral considerations. Any escalation of tensions (and risk) would probably benefit Trump in the polls/vote. So in addition to his foreign policy views and inclinations, Obama has an extra incentive to play it safe in international affairs. As long as he manages to keep things quiet on both domestic and foreign policy, Hillary will sail through the election.

BN: You've pointed out one of Obama's sins of commission: that Obama called for Assad's ouster, and that Obama probably shouldn't have done so. His anti-Assad stance has made it more difficult to get Assad to the negotiating table and to get Russia on board with the US. Unfortunately, Assad and Putin very likely believe that the US has maximal demands and interests: a pro-reform government in Damascus, the elimination of terrorists, and the reduction of Russia's influence in Syria.

Nevertheless, I still think the safe zones idea could work and is the morally right thing for the US to implement. At this point, it would take some work for Obama and John Kerry to credibly signal that the US is only interested in protecting the lives of innocent civilians caught in the crossfire and doesn't have expansionist aims. But it doesn't seem like Obama is willing to put in the effort--despite that, I don't doubt, John Kerry and Samantha Power, among others, would be willing to the requisite legwork.

In the end, you're probably right that a new US administration, with a blank slate, would be in a better position to help on humanitarian and conflict resolution aspects of the war. If for no other reason, Hillary and Trump don't have the political baggage (the global perception of weakness, lack of credibility internationally, etc.) that the Obama administration currently has, especially with the major actors in the Syrian civil war.

I suspect that of the two remaining candidates for president, Hillary is the one who will likely press the issue on Syria, and do so right away. So on this point, I do disagree with you. She's more hawkish than Trump, at least based on their policy speeches (though not based on Rhetoric, certainly). After all, Clinton has a history of advocating for US military intervention (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, etc.), whereas Trump embraces a narrow "America First" conception of American national interests. Moreover, Clinton has in the past called for the implementation of safe zones, protected by airstrikes. Back in April Hillary argued, "I do still support a no-fly zone because I think we need to put in safe havens for those poor Syrians who are fleeing both Assad and ISIS and so they have some place they can be safe."

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

New CWCP Blog Series: Dispatches from the Far East

For nearly two years, I have enjoyed the amazing privilege to live and work in South Korea. I took this opportunity somewhat on chance, and it may seem counterintuitive that a Russia specialist such as myself would move to an area outside of his/her expertise. Yet the privilege to experience this region from square one with a fresh set of eyes and insatiable curiosity has been a magnificent experience.

At the request of CWCP's president Brad Nelson, I will be publishing a series of blog posts about my adventures in East Asia as related to regional history and security. It is best to think of these as a combination of memoir, political commentary and travelogue. The purpose of these coming blog posts are not to provide rigorous academic or policy analyses (although hopefully readers can glean some interesting lessons/viewpoints from them). Yet in a digital age such as ours, it is easy to view our world exclusively though such resources as Wikipedia or the New York Times.

There is nothing inherently wrong with these valuable resources. As I have learned, however, there are simply too many complexities that cannot be captured or understood by reading words on a screen.

We hope that you enjoy these on-the-ground reports!

Sunday, June 12, 2016

The Orlando Shooting

Given the horrific and consequential news out of Florida today, I thought I'd give our readers my quick reaction. As we know now, 50 people have been killed and another 53 have been wounded as a result of a shooting at a club, by a lone gunman, in Orlando early Sunday morning. This was the deadliest mass shooting in US history.

I'm sure I'm not alone when I say that my first reaction was of shock, disgust, sadness, and anger. And unfortunately, I can also say another response of mine was that this mass attack wasn't entirely unexpected. It simply adds to the list of terrorist violence and "loon wolf" attacks, a term coined by Max Abrahms, perpetrated against Americans on US soil.

But my overriding reaction is this: the shooting is an incredibly complex event that cross-cuts so many issues and debates within American society. In my mind, the shooting bundles together at least six discrete, prominent issues.

First, of course, is the gun issue. The mass killing came as a result of firearms, legally purchased, mind you. One of the weapons was an assault-style weapon, which many in US believe should be banned. Additionally, keep in mind that the shooter acquired his weapons despite being a "red flag" case, as he was previously questioned twice by the FBI. We'll see a ramped-up debate, once again, about the ease of access that Americans have to guns of a variety of shapes, sizes and power. In fact, it’s already started.

Second, we have the possibility of a hate crime. The shooting took place at a purportedly known gay club. Reports indicate that the perpetrator had become upset when seeing two men kissing in public. And the gunman allegedly had made anti-homosexual remarks to a ex-co-worker. Given the venue and his expressed sentiments, it's very likely that this was a purposeful attack against the LGBTQ community. (I'm sure many would go beyond arguing that it's merely "very likely," that it's undoubtedly a targeted attack against LGBTQ; I don't want to go that far yet without knowing more about the shooter and his motives.)

Third, terrorism is in play. The shooter apparently had some kind of ties to extremism/extremists to prompt the FBI to question him twice. As confirmed by law enforcement officials, the shooter called 911 prior to his spree, expressing his allegiance to ISIS and its leader, al-Bagdadi. And we also know that ISIS has taken credit for the Orlando attack, referring to the shooter as an "Islamic State fighter." That said, so far there's no evidence of a direct connection by ISIS to either the shooter or the attack, though that's still possible, pending further investigation. It's also possible that the perpetrator was inspired by ISIS.

Fourth, did intelligence do its job? Put simply, authorities had the shooter in their grasp twice and yet let him slip away. The efficacy of US intelligence has been a question that has dominated foreign policy debate and discussion since 9/11. Intelligence failures have been blamed on 9/11, the invasion of Iraq, the rise of ISIS, and so on. The Orlando attack could very well re-spark Americans' concern about the competency of US intelligence agents and the entire intelligence apparatus.

Fifth, mental health issues might be involved here, too. A growing body of literature on terrorism indicates that quite a few militants have personal crises and are mentally unstable. In line with these findings, according to Reuters, the gunman's ex-wife reports that he beat her and was violent, and was bipolar and mentally ill. The same ex-co-worker mentioned above called the gunman "unhinged" and "unstable." It could conceivably turn out that this was the major driver in the attack—either by itself or along with extremist ideology (support for ISIS, hate for LGBTQ). And indeed, it should be of no surprise if see a revival of past debates about access to and funding for mental health care (evaluations, therapists, medication, etc.).

Sixth, as usual, politics will rear its head, and probably not for good purposes. Don’t expect major policy or legislative changes or innovations in response to the violence. That’s my advice in general, given the polarized electorate and political class, but this moment in US politics is unique, as we're only five months away from the presidential election. The impending election will engender Democrats and Republicans to use the attack to score political points with their bases of support. It’s sad, yes, but also a reality of US politics.

Already, and bizarrely, Donald Trump, the Republican nominee, has claimed credit, asserting that the shooting shows he was right to call for a ban on Muslims entering into the US (note: the shooter was an American citizen) and to label the Obama administration as weak and incompetent on terrorism. Trump has also called for the resignation of Obama. Meantime, Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee, issued a statement that restarted the discussion about stricter gun control legislation.

Friday, May 27, 2016

The Trump Phenomenon

RTX1GZCO
Photo: Reuters

The below conversation between CWCP's Brad Nelson and Yohanes Sulaiman took place over the past week via email. It has been slightly edited for readability and length.

Brad Nelson: Let's start by discussing the big picture aspect of the Trump phenomenon. What's going on? And how did we get here?

Yohanes Sulaiman: There is major backlash in both Democratic and Republican parties from people who feel like they’re left out, either the restless Millennials or middle-age white formerly blue collar workers, in flyover states.

In the Republican Party, Trump has managed to make them feel that he understands their pain and that he’s the only bona fide outsider. With the Republican Party badly fragmented with 15 other candidates in the race, Trump managed to win simply by maintaining a strong cohesive minority bloc of around 30-40% of GOP primary voters. So basically you have a badly fragmented base of Republican voters.

The reverse is true in the Democratic Party. Sanders' revolution was stopped because he was only facing one candidate, Hillary Clinton, the de facto nominee, who received support from the leadership of the party.

If you're a Trump supporter, it's good that he managed to clinch the nomination already, making people get used to the idea that he is the nominee. Yes, there are some holdouts, like Bill Kristol or even Paul Ryan, but by and large, Trump looks like he will get the party united.

In contrast, I think that if Sanders still refuses to surrender by the July party convention, and his voters have the impression that they are expected to just fall in line and vote for Hillary and that the election was stolen from Sanders thanks to a rigged electoral system, many of those Sanders voters might simply sit home or even vote for Trump.

BN: Ah, the holdouts. My prediction: by the end of summer the overwhelming majority of the "establishment" GOPers refusing to back Trump will be those who don't have to run for office in the fall. In other words, I'm referring to a group of Republicans like Romney, the Bushes, Bill Kristol, some of the big GOP donors, and the like. Day by day, more and more GOPers are falling in line with Trump, and the reason for that is that the race is tightening. Party members recognize that Trump can win, that victory isn't a major long shot, as many pundits, forecasters, and party officials thought just a few months ago.

I do think the issue of Bernie supporters--whether they "come home" to the Democrats, defect to Trump, or simply sit home or cast a 3rd party ballot--is interesting. Yes, he's drawing from a somewhat similar, though not identical, pool of voters as Trump. And the growing fissures (see Nevada) within the Democratic Party are surely giving Clinton a major headache. But history says that it's likely that most of them will vote Hillary in November. But even if a healthy portion of Bernie voters don't vote Hillary, that might not be Clinton's demise. For what if Hillary draws a sizable portion of Republicans away from Trump, what happens then? In short, we might see mass defections on both sides of the political spectrum.

But back to my original question. There are many factors, in my view, that account for Trump's rise. Such factors include Trump's personal characteristics (his wealth, celebrity, and personality), his appeals to authoritarianism, a weak GOP field of candidates, the state of the US economy (low growth, stagnant wages), a strain of racism and xenophobia within America, the incorporation of "new" voters into the GOP base (though the exact number has been disputed), and a growing sense among mainstream voters (on both the left and right, as you suggest) that Washington is lazy and corrupt, among other things.

There will be a temptation to explain what Trump's rise says about American politics. While an important enterprise, to be sure, I think scholars and analysts ought to be very cautious and prudent about the conclusions they draw. Put simply, I think Trump is the ultimate "black swan" of American politics, a rare outlier case that's unlikely to be repeated anytime soon, regardless if he wins or loses in November.

The recent writings by Andrew Sullivan, Robert Kagan, Fredja Buric, Robert Reich, among others, have discussed how Trump is fascist or is bringing fascism to America. This is wild hyperbole that overlooks the role that US domestic political institutions--which are durable and strong--play in American politics and policymaking. For instance, should Trump win the presidency, a host of American institutions and actors (Congress, public opinion, state governors, etc.) will be strongly motivated to circumscribe his power and block his proposed policies. Moreover a Trump victory later this year will highly likely lead to the Democrats winning back Congress in 2018. If anything, I foresee heightened political paralysis and gridlock, not fascism or strongman rule. 

YS: I agree that the majority of the holdouts will end up falling in line with Trump. They look at his numbers and see that it is not as bad as they thought, especially with Hillary struggling. Furthermore, if the worst that the New York Times could get is this tabloid-like story after months of dredging mud on this already very well-known guy, then Trump probably has little to worry about. In fact Clinton might be the one who should be worried, as Camille Paglia, a Sanders supporter, stated: "Wow, millionaire workaholic Donald Trump chased young, beautiful, willing women and liked to boast about it. Jail him now! Meanwhile, the New York Times remains mute about Bill Clinton’s long record of crude groping and grosser assaults—not one example of which could be found to taint Trump."

These attacks, in my view, have made Trump seem like a normal Republican now, as he's getting the harsh treatment that many GOPers get, or think that they get. And the more I see Trump, the more I think he knows what he's doing. His spat with Amazon's Jeff Bezos has reinforced the perception among Republicans of Trump as the victim of media bias. And also by attacking Amazon.com, he is attracting older, non-technology savvy people, whose mom-and-pop stores could not compete with Amazon.com and got steamrolled over the last two decades. Furthermore, releasing the names of people whom Trump considers fit for the Supreme Court only solidifies his credentials as a conservative Republican, pushing back against the arguments of people like Bill Kristol who see him as a Republican in name only.

Frankly, I believe Trump's strategy is to gather all the "losers" in America, people who lost their blue-collar jobs, got their mom-and-pop stores steamrolled by Silicon valley, and think their values have been undermined by the elitist media on both the East and West Coasts. This is more and more like the Chapter II of the Tea Party Revolution. Yes, it is a black-swan effect, but I would argue that like a great businessman, he sees a niche that he can fill, and he's jumped on it. He might be politically incorrect, but he knows his audience well, and that has arguably brought them, the "silent majority," into the mainstream.

BN: I'm not entirely convinced Trump always knows what he's doing politically, that's he's a competent political strategist. Of course, it's easy to infer that he is, since what he's been doing has worked, at least in the sense that he's now the GOP nominee for president. In my judgement, much of his campaign has relied on his outsize personality and celebrity. But perhaps I'm underestimating him.

I'm dubious about any outreach to minority groups. Any attempts so far have been clumsy and, quite frankly, perceived as rather racist, and I don't expect any improvement on these efforts. I suspect Trump and his staff believe--or at least they should--that his best route to the presidency is to win the white vote, particularly the white women vote. Slyly cozying up to the KKK and other white supremacists and references to the"Silent Majority," as you mentioned, play into this idea. At bottom, if Trump rolls up strong numbers on the white vote, that could very well offset Trump's struggling support from Hispanics, Muslims and African Americans. In a recent Fox News poll, Trump is winning the women vote by 9 percent over Clinton. If that result is duplicated in November, he wins.  

Don't be surprised to hear about the importance of the so-called "security moms" in this election--that group of women who were an important bloc of support for George W. Bush. And in fact, the quest to lure that voting block, I believe, will only turn off Muslims, Hispanics, and so on. Why? Because to win the women vote, especially white women, he'll be very tempted to double down on his incendiary rhetoric/policy proposals on crime, terrorism, law and order, and so on.

YS: I agree that he is not a political strategist. What I observe is that he's calibrating his messages, tactically trying to build short-term momentum that might help him over the long-run. Actually, the more I think about it, Trump reminds me of Napoleon's portrayal in Owen Connelly's "Blundering to Glory," in that he relies on his talent to improvise and capitalize on his enemies' weaknesses in order to win rather than his expertise or competence.

I think this explains Trump's tendency to throw everything until it sticks, from belittling his opponents, to "building a wall," etc. Yes, he has alienated a huge segment of American population, but he is gambling that Hillary will make bigger mistakes in the future. This especially rings true to me, given the potential legal problems piling up for Hillary and Sanders' sniping from her left. As you noted, Trump's outreach so far has been very clumsy, and even racist. But Hillary has political problems, too.

The question for Hillary is whether she--who has to juggle many interest groups, including African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, blue-collar union workers, women, Wall Street financiers, Silicon Valley executives, environmentalists, Millennials, and so on--will be able to maintain the loose coalition of longstanding Democratic voters, which won't be easy or a given. Hillary is prone to making mistakes, as is evident in her massive loss in West Virginia and her very slim victory in Kentucky, after having offended many of them by denigrating the coal industry. Keep in mind that Trump likely only needs to satisfy his white blue collar supporters. 

BN: "Throwing stuff against the wall" is hardly thinking and acting strategically. I do agree with your argument that he's effectively throwing everything but the kitchen sink against Clinton, whether or not these attacks are grounded in fact/reality. And he's not waiting until the later summer/fall, he's already enthusiastically launched wave after wave of attacks, many of which are personal ones against Hillary. One of Trump's problems is that he can't control himself and the campaign has little control over him. It's one thing to engage in mudslinging against Hillary, it's quite another to go after John McCain, Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney, and so on. And this past week offered another example of his inability to control himself. Trump unnecessarily went after New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez after Martinez skipped a Trump event in Albuquerque. He stated that Martinez wasn't doing a good job, blaming her for a whole host of state issues. Talk about dumb, this is it! Not only is Martinez popular within the GOP--she is widely viewed as a rising star within the party--she is a prominent Latina, two groups that Trump desperately needs to win over.

Trump won't change his behavior. But if he's smart, he'll let his campaign call more of the shots, which might restrain him a bit. He's probably too egotistical to let that happen, and I doubt anyone in his campaign is brazen enough or has Trump's ear to convince him to relinquish some strategic and organizational oversight. Perhaps his kids? There was much chatter about a month ago, right around the time that Paul Manafort was given an elevated position within the campaign, that Trump was seeking a more "presidential image." Political pundits pointed to Trump's staying away from the cable talk shows, especially the Sunday morning telecasts, and that his stump speeches seemed to be generating fewer controversial headlines and attention. But that didn't last long. He's right back at it.